Can 3-D save the movie industry?

Filmmakers hail the technology as a new frontier. But the future looks a lot like the past.

Published May 28, 2009 10:28AM (EDT)

An audience watches a film through 3D glasses.
An audience watches a film through 3D glasses.

In the early 1950s, as the advent of television threatened the supremacy of movies, 3-D was hailed as the future of cinema, the magic solution to Hollywood's postwar slump. Jerry Wald, Columbia's production chief at the time, was understandably thrilled when a quickie picture rushed out by his studio to cash in on the craze, "Man in the Dark," became a hit. "Now we got a gimmick," he said. "We'll throw things at the public until they start throwing them back!"

Now, in 2009, 3-D is once again being hailed as the savior of cinema, but no one has the guts to call it a gimmick. Instead, depending on who's doing the talking, the new and improved 3-D is a brilliant leap in technology, a fresh tool to enhance storytelling, a new way to bring families together for an allegedly inexpensive good time in a troubled economic climate. The new 3-D doesn't make you throw up; the glasses are plastic, not paper, and don't have those old-fashioned red and green lenses; and, come on, the whole thing is just cool. Plus, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron are really excited about it, so it's got to be great -- right?

The list of upcoming 3-D movies is long: Pixar's "Up," which played Cannes to rapturous response from critics a few weeks ago, opens wide this Friday. James Cameron's live-action 3-D adventure "Avatar" is scheduled for release in December. The first installment in a series of animated 3-D movies adapted from the Eurofavorite comic-book series "Tintin," directed by Steven Spielberg, is currently in post-production. "Disney's A Christmas Carol," directed by Robert Zemeckis, will show up around holiday time, and newly revamped 3-D versions of "Titanic," "Dawn of the Dead" and "Toy Story" are rumored to be in the works.

But no matter how much 3-D proponents try to amp up excitement for these projects, nobody can yet answer the essential question: What's the difference between a gimmick and a revolution? And aren't audiences as likely to tire of a so-called revolution as they are a gimmick? The reality is that the new 3-D, once we've gotten over the initial phase of oohing and ahhing, may not be that much more meaningful, or more useful, in terms of storytelling, than the old 3-D was. But almost nobody in Hollywood -- and certainly not anyone with a stake in RealD, the technology behind this so-called 3-D revolution -- is going to say that outright, particularly after the massive success of DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens" (the first animated picture to be shot in 3-D, instead of being converted from 2-D CGI after the fact) last spring.

The proponents of the new 3-D, or RealD, technology would like us to think that in the future, kids won't even want to look at that old, boring 2-D stuff, in much the same way some young people refuse to watch black-and-white movies. DreamWorks animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg is one of the technology's loudest champions: "This isn't our father's 3-D," he told USA Today in March, just before the release of "Monsters vs. Aliens." "The digital projection puts a perfect image on the screen. There is no ghosting, no eye strain or nausea."

If Katzenberg sounds like a zealot, he is right in that the new 3-D technology is a wholly different creature from the one André De Toth -- the famously one-eyed director of one of the more memorable 1950s 3-D features, "House of Wax" -- had to deal with. What's more, 3-D filmmaking wasn't a creation of the '50s: It had been around, in some form, since before the Depression. But only in the early '50s did the technology become viable -- and even then, it required the use of two cameras running simultaneously. (Supposedly, the gap between the lenses simulated the space between human eyes.) When it came to exhibition, the old-style 3-D movies required, in addition to the famous cardboard glasses, two projectors. The setup introduced plenty of opportunities for images to wriggle out of sync, often resulting in motion sickness and the dread tossing of the Jujubes.

The RealD technology, on the other hand, requires only one projector. The system also involves numerous bits of optical and digital hardware and software, a specially formulated screen surface, and a polarizing device, known as a Z-screen, that sits in front of the projector lens. The new-style 3-D glasses incorporate polarized lenses as well, as opposed to the old-fashioned red-and-green (or red-and-blue) ones, and, even more significantly, will work if you tilt your head at an angle. In other words, you don't have to be facing the screen head-on, as with the old 3-D technology. The cameras used to make 3-D features have evolved as well: James Cameron himself has spent years developing HDTV systems that allow films to be shot in 3-D, as opposed to making them in traditional 2-D and adding the 3-D stuff after the fact.

Even to the defiantly ungeeky among us, the technology does sound cool, and it obviously didn't happen overnight. And in theory, at least, it does seem to unlock a wealth of creative possibilities for filmmakers. In an interview on the entertainment and gaming Web site IGN, Joshua Greer, the president and co-founder of RealD, explains, "What's really happening now with the filmmakers that are being turned on to 3-D is we're seeing a new creative renaissance. And at the end of the day it's about the story, but even more importantly how you tell the story, and what's happening with these filmmakers is the way they're thinking about 3-D now, as opposed to being just a gimmick, but actually as a storytelling device, is really, frankly, going to reinvigorate the experience of cinema again." Greer goes on to suggest that in 10 years' time, this 3-D technology could be as ubiquitous as color or sound. Obviously, he sees this as a good thing: "We're binocular beings. We see with depth in every part of our life, except in our media."

All of this would be great, and completely logical -- if only the 3-D movies of the past few years were actually better, or at least more fun, than the average 2-D picture. But just how much difference, artistically speaking, has 3-D made to features like Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf," Byron Howard and Chris Williams' "Bolt" or Patrick Lussier's "My Bloody Valentine 3D"? Let's not even consider whether the 3-D effects enhance the storytelling in any of these movies. Were they even worth the trouble? The effects in "Beowulf" (which uses Zemeckis' patented, ultra-creepy "motion-capture" technology to make its characters appear allegedly realistic) were clumsy and featured lots of long, pointy objects jabbing out from the screen -- barely an improvement on Mr. De Toth's use of the paddle-ball champion in "House of Wax," an image that most schlock-movie fans know about even if they've never seen it. ("There's a man with a bag of popcorn," he says, aiming his paddle ball seemingly inches over the audience's heads. "Close your mouth. I'm aiming for the bag.") The 3-D effects in "Bolt" were barely memorable, although that's possibly because the story around them was so anesthetizing. And while I greatly enjoyed two of the effects in "My Bloody Valentine 3D," one in which a pickax sproings through a mischievous teenager's eye (via the back of his skull) and another in which a French bulldog fearlessly rushes the camera, I'd call these effects fun -- not revolutionary.

There are also, of course, pictures that have used the recent 3-D technology beautifully, or at least with good-natured inventiveness. Last year's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" was enjoyable partly because the sophisticated yet retro-futuristic effects suited the old-fashioned hokeyness of the story: When a flock of phosphorescent birds fluttered forth from the screen, they were more about innocent charm and wonder than about whiz-bang impressiveness. And Henry Selick's marvelous stop-motion picture "Coraline," based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, may be the most inventive (and unsettling) 3-D picture yet, although again its details are subtle rather than attention-grabbing. Selick and his team use 3-D effects for lots of tunnel-vision perspective shots, but they also use it to enhance the texture of the doll-size characters' tiny sweaters, or the grain of the leather on their shoes. "Coraline" is a work of art in miniature, and the 3-D technology adds an extra dash of polish.

But does "Coraline" need 3-D to hold our attention? I haven't seen the movie in its 2-D version, but I can't imagine that it looks disappointingly flat, or that its eerie brand of storytelling is any less effective. Even those who have embraced 3-D technology, like John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Disney and Pixar, know the story is always king. "I think 3-D is a fantastic device that helps get the audience into the story that much more," Lasseter said at Cannes. "As Pete [Docter, co-director of "Up," and one of the writers of "Wall-E"] has said, 'We've always made our films in 3-D, we've just shown them in 2-D.'" Lasseter added, however, that he was glad Disney hasn't abandoned traditional, hand-drawn animation; the studio will release the 2-D "The Princess and the Frog" later this year. "2-D animation stopped being made by the studios. They kept saying audiences don't want to watch 2-D animation anymore. The reality is that audiences don't want to watch bad movies. 2-D animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling."

On the one hand, that's a safe, ass-covering statement for a Disney executive to make: Lasseter obviously wants to make sure none of his company's products are treated like lowly stepchildren. On the other hand, he does seem to understand that 3-D technology isn't a cure-all for the movie industry. In the eyes of studio execs, the success of "Monsters vs. Aliens" seemed to prove that audiences prefer 3-D over 2-D -- but perhaps it only meant that the 3-D novelty offers some extra, and perhaps only temporary, appeal. One genuine upside to 3-D technology is that it works only in theaters: RealD projection technology isn't available for home use -- at least not yet. (Watching "My Bloody Valentine 3D" at home, for example, requires using the old-style red-and-green glasses, and you'll have to make sure you're facing the screen at the correct angle or the 3-D effects are barely noticeable.) At this point, 3-D movies are more difficult to pirate. And there is something fun about being part of a moviegoing community, all wearing those goofy glasses.

But let's not get overly romantic about the glasses. The studios stand to make lots of extra money off them, particularly when a parent is paying admission for the whole family. With that mandatory surcharge for the glasses added to the ticket price (you can't just save glasses from a previous film and reuse them), a family of four can expect to see the cost of seeing a movie jump by nearly $20. While that's a lot cheaper than Disneyland, what we're talking about really is, after all, just a day at the movies. The glasses surcharge also helps pad box-office revenues: "Monsters vs. Aliens" took in $58.2 million on its opening weekend, and as Brooks Barnes, of the New York Times, reported, only 2,100 of the 7,000 screens on which it opened were equipped with 3-D technology. The 3-D screenings garnered prices of up to $4 above the standard admission, which means about 30 percent of the screens delivered 56 percent of the gross. That doesn't mean "Monsters vs. Aliens" was necessarily more beloved by audiences than other, non-3-D movies; it means, simply, that the tickets for those 3-D screenings cost more. Why wouldn't Katzenberg be touting 3-D technology as the only current moviemaking trend that matters, when he has so much to gain from it?

So while there's nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures 3-D technology has to offer, we should also be on our guard when studio executives and filmmakers start shoving it at us like, well, a pointy spear poking out from the screen. In a recent Time magazine article on the new 3-D, Spielberg remarked, "Every movie I made, up until 'Tintin,' I always kept one eye closed when I've been framing a shot" -- the better, apparently, to see it in 2-D, as an audience would. "On 'Tintin,'" Spielberg said, "I have both of my eyes open."

How exciting! How wonderful! Except -- does it really matter that much in the scheme of the finished product? The new 3-D technology is only as good as the people using it. And as André De Toth knew, one eye is plenty.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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